In 2005, British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver convinced London’s Greenwich borough to let him remake their school-lunch system. Armed with some publicity, some private funding and some ideas about how school lunches should look, he began remaking the kitchens and training the cafeteria workers. Neat stunt, right? Tim Harford picks up the story:
What caught the attention of Michele Belot and Jonathan James, though, was the way Oliver’s project had been implemented. Belot and James – economists at Nuffield College, Oxford, and at the University of Essex respectively – noted that the campaign had created a near-perfect experiment. The chef had convinced Greenwich’s council and schools to change menus to fit his scheme; he mobilised resources, provided equipment and trained dinner ladies. Other London boroughs with similar demographics received none of these advantages – and indeed, because the programme wasn’t broadcast until after the project was well under way, probably knew little about it. The result was a credible pilot project. It wasn’t quite up to the gold standard of a randomised trial, but it wasn’t far off.
Thanks to the UK’s exhaustive school testing regime, Belot and James were able to track pupils’ performance in some detail. They concentrated on primary schools, figuring that secondary school pupils could (and probably would) avoid eating school lunches that were too worthy. (This is surely correct. My own habitual sixth-form lunch was four bars of chocolate – a pound a day well spent.)
Their answer – a provisional one, since they are still refining the research – is that feeding primary school kids less fat, sugar and salt, and more fruit and vegetables, has a surprisingly large effect. Authorised absences, the best available proxy for illness, fell by 15 per cent in Greenwich, relative to schools in similar London boroughs. And relative to other boroughs, the proportion of children reaching Level Four in English rose by four and a half percentage points (more than six per cent), while the proportion of children achieving Level Five in Science rose by six points, or almost 20 per cent.
“What astonishes me,” writes Harford, “is that it took a television company and a celebrity chef to carry out a proper policy experiment.” And what astonishes me is that it’s not being replicated. Those are huge results. It’s just one project, but the way you find out if the numbers hold is by re-creating the experiment. If something as cheap as good food can deliver something as important as better school performance, it’s time to fund some serious pilot projects.
Photo credit: By Rick Nederstigt/Getty Images